BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


What Should Teachers Do When Confronted with Science Denial?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “How Can Educators Confront Science Denial?” by Rebekka Darner in Educational Researcher, May 2019 (Vol. 48, #4, p. 229-238); Darner can be reached at
In this article in Educational Researcher, Rebekka Darner (Illinois State University) says instructors are encountering science denial in their classrooms “more than ever before.” She believes that science denial is “an enormous barrier to educating a science-informed citizenry” and “a threat to our democracy.”
But to be effective, teachers must understand the emotions and thinking behind it: “Evolution, climate change, vaccinations, and GMOs are scientific topics that potentially threaten one’s faith, sense of normalcy, confidence in parenting decisions, and sense of food safety,” says Darner. “While understanding the scientific facts of topics subject to science denial is important, ‘science denial is less about science and more about deep fears and core personal identity.’” (Rosenau, 2012)
Educators’ goal, Darner believes, should be to get students to science acceptance. This is not uncritically buying into scientific facts based on experts’ claims. Rather, it’s “the willingness to engage in critical evidence evaluation, despite its potential to contradict one’s preferred conclusion.”
The most straightforward approach when students deny scientific findings (for example, contesting climate change) is to listen respectfully to their viewpoint, share the scientific explanation in understandable terms, and invite them to weigh the evidence. However, this approach can backfire, either through misunderstandings when the teacher pushes back on misconceptions, or because the scientific explanation fundamentally conflicts with students’ identity, worldview, and what respected family members and mentors have been saying over many years.
“The backfire effect puts science educators in a precarious position,” says Darner: “Do we avoid referencing evidence when teaching science to prevent further entrenchment of science denial, or do we nevertheless reference evidence during our instruction, which is likely to polarize our student body regarding controversial topics?” The answer, she says, is that the “counter-evidence must be coupled with affirmation of values and must be framed in a way that does not threaten the opposing worldview.”
“This is not to say that instructors should accept and reinforce inaccurate claims,” she continues. “Rather, comments that allow students to save face legitimize the student’s contributions to the discussion, even when they may have made an inaccurate claim.” For example, “I see why you would conclude that.” “I know you are not alone in thinking that.” “Thank you for bringing this up so we can address this common misconception.” The key is for the teacher to allow for “dissention, friendly disagreement, and preservations of competence when a dialoguer is found to be incorrect.”
Darner believes self-determination theory is helpful in understanding the social and cultural factors that motivate students who deny science. This theory identifies three basic psychological needs: competence (a student’s perceived efficacy in pursuit of a goal); relatedness (the need to connect with others); and autonomy (acting in accordance with one’s true self, and of one’s own volition).
“The teaching implications of this are significant,” says Darner. “If science educators want to motivate accuracy goals, we need to cultivate its value in the social milieu of our classrooms, and support students’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness as they engage in accuracy-oriented reasoning, such as when students are critically evaluating empirical evidence…
Autonomy-supporting practices include assuming the student’s perspectives on issues, providing explanatory rationales, using noncontrolling language, and avoiding guilt or shame. Competence is supported when students receive messages that acknowledge the difficulty of a task but also express instructor confidence in the student’s ability to learn how to perform well. Relatedness is supported when instructors acknowledge unique contributions from individual students and express interest in students’ experiences and perspectives.”
Here are the instructional design principles Darner recommends to attend to these psychological needs and increase the chances that resistant students will gradually accept scientific arguments:
- Instruction engages students in critical evaluation of evidence, assessing plausibility of at least two claims accompanied by real evidence.
- During instruction, students are given examples of people grappling with this issue to whom they can relate emotionally.
- Instruction is orchestrated so students can fulfill the three psychological needs; belonging by working in supportive groups; competence through adequate scaffolding of the concepts; and autonomy through respectful presentation of all sides of the issue without judgment or shame.
- The teacher establishes a classroom culture that values accuracy and sense-making.
- Instruction includes contexts relevant to students’ lives.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.